There is a kitten in the window. Wait – there are two kittens in the window – which is a curious thing given that the pet-supply shop is called The Regal Beagle.
The feisty snowshoe Siamese, who is called Conchita, is climbing up a potted palm, and the torpid tuxedo, who was named Jameson for the whiskey, is lazily lounging in the bed after a raucous romp, petite paws pointing into the air.
When the shop bell rings and Daisy, the first customer of the day, pulls her owner in to buy a treat, they scamper to meet and greet her.
Daisy, who will be 10 at the start of the new year, doesn’t pay them much mind – she’s here to do some serious shopping.
She knows what she wants.
She plants her front paws on the counter and grabs a bully stick, securing it in her mouth.
Elias Varkoutas compliments Daisy on her choice, and Sandra Vega Russo escorts her to the large fenced-in back yard, where she can chew in the shade, and if she so desires, take a dip in the doggie plunge pool.
Sandra and Elias, partners in life and in business, opened The Regal Beagle in April on 23rd Avenue in a space once occupied by a hair salon.
Sandra and Elias may be the owners, but it is Conchita and Jameson who really run the show.
At least that’s what the frisky felines tell the parakeets, Blueberry and Lemoni, named for the color of their feathers, who have set up house in a wire cage that hangs from the ceiling, far from kitten claws.
Although they are animal lovers, Elias and Sandra, longtime friends who have been a couple for three years, never dreamed they would be the proprietors of a pet-supply store.
In fact, the very fact that they are even together defies the odds.
Sandra, who was born and grew up in Soho and still lives there, was raised by a single mom who came to the United States from Ecuador.
After graduating from high school and enrolling in college, she held a number of jobs, some of them in children’s fashion. Fluent in English, Spanish and Portuguese, she handled international sales in her last position.
In 2005, she married, and after the birth of her children – Elena Rene, aka “The Scream-ager,” is 12, and Sebastian Matteo is 10 – she became a stay-at-home mother.
Elias, who was born and raised in Astoria and moved back to the neighborhood in 2008 to care for his elderly parents, opened a restaurant, which has since closed, in Soho that was close to Sandra’s apartment.
Although Sandra never ate in the restaurant, she and the children used to come in to use the bathroom.
Elias, who has been silent behind the counter, where goldfish won at a carnival swim in a bowl, interrupts to enter the conversation.
He hadn’t planned on talking – he wanted Sandra to be the focus – but he can’t resist telling this part of the story.
“Because I thought she was cute, I let her,” he says, adding that the restroom was in the residential section of the building, so it wasn’t a simple matter to allow a non-customer entry. “The kids also came in to get free Jordan almonds.”
Sometime well into their friendship, they ran into each other at a party.
“I was walking out to leave as she came in, so I turned around and decided to stay,” Elias says. “During the conversation, she told me the kids were with their dad in Nantucket, so I thought that something wasn’t right.”
Sandra informed him that she had, indeed, left her husband, which prompted Elias to give her his number.
“I told her to use it if she wanted to,” he says.
She adds, “It took us two years before we started dating.”
Since 2019, they have been a couple.
By that time, Elias no longer had a restaurant and was working on and off in a friend’s metal-fabrication company in Brooklyn.
During the pandemic, Sandra, who had been laid off, contracted Covid-19.
“I sent the kids to my husband’s for three weeks, so I was all alone,” Sandra says. “I didn’t think I would make it. Elias used to drive his motorcycle to my apartment and bring me soup.”
Elias admits he has three bikes — BMWs, all purchased at different times. So he’s not a collector, not really.
He and Sandra were contemplating their post-pandemic future when a friend told Elias of his own longtime success owning a pet-supply store.
Elias became intrigued.
“Because of the pandemic, I knew that spaces were going to come up as businesses closed, so I started looking,” he says, adding that the shop’s cute name was inspired by The Regal Beagle, the bar in the 1977-1984 TV sitcom, Three’s Company.
Sandra was on board from the beginning.
“I needed to do something on my own,” she says. “And I also needed to provide for my children.”
She borrowed money from her mother, Nancy Vega, to open The Regal Beagle, which proudly announces itself with a crown-shaped logo whose points are paw prints.
“She’s retired, and it’s her life savings,” Sandra says. “She said she wanted to make sure this comes true for me; she’s always been my rock. I told her I would pay back every penny.”
With The Regal Beagle, Elias and Sandra hope to build a store – and a community.
It has to be something more than a shop, she says, because “we know that people can always order supplies online and that mom-and-pops are suffering.”
The shop’s bell rings and another dog walks in.
Several treats are selected, and as he leaves, Conchita snatches a toy off the shelf, stuffs it in her mouth and scampers after him.
Nancy A. Ruhling may be reached at [email protected] Follow her on Twitter at @nancyruhling and visit astoriacharacters.com.